The Khamsini – a dry, hot, sandy wind – was building as we entered Wadi Rum. The grand rock formations and their geological layers of colour were beginning to disappear behind a swirling, hazy cloud of dust and sand.
This beautiful and and bewitching place, described by T. E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and godlike,” reminding us that “Rum” (as locals call it) was a wild and hostile environment, to be respected. Before veering off the road and into the desert proper, our 4WD followed the narrow single gauge tracks of the former Hejaz Railway line, until we reached the steam engine and carriages, the like of which would have transported pilgrims from Damascus to Medina and Mecca at the turn of the last century. The railway became notorious during the Arab Revolt (1916-18) as it was the principal target for the Arab Legion and Lawrence of Arabia in the revolt against Turkish domination.
Climbing aboard the driver’s cab with sand whipping through, enabled one to imagine Lawrence’s men appearing out of the haze upon horse and camel to ambush and attack this old relic. Even today, capturing such a moment is still possible but only through the Jordan Heritage Revival Company’s (JHRC) re-enactment of those times. This is a chance to live history upon the very sand dunes that bore witness to these events.
The Khamsini was not abating and as trying to reach our Bedouin-style Camp “Rahayeb” was proving tricky, our only option was to continue towards another historic edifice, where the past once again comes to life through JHRC at Shobak Castle, in the Ma’an region.
“Wake up at sunrise and watch Shobak Castle light up,” my guide Ma’moun had insisted; at dawn I parted the curtains, to observe a view that could not have changed much since the crusaders stood upon the ramparts in defence of their quest. Serenely and without a breath of air, the great fortification bounced hues of soft pinks, oranges and gold off the sandstone rocks, that has crowned the hill on the eastern side of The Sharah Mountains since 1115. To complete this ancient scene, an elderly Bedouin, with staff in hand and wearing a red-checked keffiyeh, shepherded his flock up the steep escarpment; a snapshot of centuries past.
Fully illuminated in the morning sunshine, Shobak Castle, although a ruin, still holds a grandeur when set against a cloudless sky. The greatest privilege was to be the only visitor to explore its visible and hidden treasures, such as the tunnel, whose 365 steps still lead to the bottom of the valley to reach a water source, and the calligraphic Arabic script wrapped around the turrets.
The re-enactment of Ayyubid soldiers preparing for battle under the command of “Saladin” takes place within the ancient castle arches, chambers and vaults that have echoed to the footsteps of the Crusader, Ayyubid and Mamluk forefathers. They would have surveyed the surrounding hills from their strategically valuable elevation to spot invaders or caravanserai following historic trade routes passing across the plateaus and rugged hills.
A circuitous drive across the mountain tracks of Al Juhair, one of Shobak’s many villages, unveiled similar dramatic vistas stretching from Wadi Musa (home to Petra), Wadi Araba and all the way across to the chain of valleys that make up the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Nowadays, some of these visible tracks form, at least in part, walks along the recently created Jordan trail that runs 650km down the spine of Jordan.
The trail represents Jordan’s nomadic Bedouin roots and natural affinity for trekking, and throws up unexpected encounters along the way. Even on our mountainous drive, Ma’moun gestured towards three locals, crouched beside a tree, who immediately ushered us to join them for sweetened tea that was boiling away on the campfire. “With Ramadan approaching, this is their last chance to hunt,” Ma’moun mentioned as they sat waiting for potential prey to cross their path.
After an overnight in Shobak, our meandering journey took us back to Wadi Rum along shimmering tarmac roads, passing open-sided Bedouin tents desperately trying to circulate fresh air, which signalled that the Khamsini had passed as dramatically as it had arrived. Every fissure, rock statue and distant camel was, once again, visible on the horizon and Wadi Rum’s epic landscape was back in full focus.
It was not long before the 4WD Jeep was swaying upon drifts of sand, as if enjoying a slow dance with its passengers, as we passed narrow gorges and towering cliffs, before reaching a natural rock bridge, that seemed both architecturally impossible yet defiantly immovable; “scramble up this part, between that crevice, and you will reach the top,” Ma’moun said with a wry smile.
I left the rock climbing to other hardy souls, but was prepared to scamper onto other rocks to view 2000 year old rock art, that would have been carved by ancient Thamudic and Nabatean people, a direct connection with “Rum’s” earliest inhabitants depicting their way of life. Generations have maintained an unbroken history breeding camels, goats and sheep while living in tents or in caves.
Heading to Camp Rahayeb, the sun was starting to set over “Rum” and so the daily ritual of 4WDs and camels darting across the desert to find the best elevated ledge had begun. Every rocky outcrop was silhouetted with motionless human figures waiting for the sun’s mellowing rays to fan out their corridors of light, before slowly melting into the landscape.
Nestled within a rocky enclave, our camp provided protection from the desert’s harshest conditions. Inside the main tent, the material walls were adorned with local Bedouin handicrafts; camel saddles, musical instruments, arched swords and cooking utensils that all formed parts of indigenous life. As the fire crackled in the heart of the camp, the “Oud” (stringed instrument) was played by its master, who sang softly as we headed to our beds.
Our guide Ma’moun broke the early morning silence to announce it was time to leave camp and the rose-coloured desert. We were heading out of “Rum’s” remote beauty and parched landscape and onward to the clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba.
With the mountains behind us, the Gulf of Aqaba was a captivating view. It must have been the same for every weary traveller who had carved a path through the desert, to finally make the gradual descent towards the sea. Having chanced upon a water colour painting by Robert Moresby from 1833, I could still make out the same dominant natural features across the horizon which meant that modern developers were trying to be sympathetic to their surroundings.
Aqaba is Jordan’s only coastline, and preserving and sustaining its delicate resources has become as important as all the major new developments redefining the landscape. The Marine Science Station And Aquarium (a place where the marine eco-system can be monitored) and the Aqaba Bird Observatory (a stopping point for migrating birds to and from Africa) were just two of the landmarks our boat skipper pointed out to me, as I joined him on a fishing excursion.
The gulf’s refreshing spray, cool breeze and striking perspective looking back towards the port city, with a complete sweep of muscular mountains wrapping a protective arm around the shoreline, was the ideal way to depart southern Jordan.